Strings Attached

Though funny in parts, 'Team America' ties itself in knots trying for every silly gag and dirty joke in the book.


October 15, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Team America: World Police proves that marionettes can be as foul-mouthed and profane as their cartoon counterparts, but not nearly as clever.

Unregenerate bad boys Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the pervasively corrupting frat-house geniuses behind South Park, once again take on everything they see as stupid and hypocritical. This go-round, however, their delivery agent is not proudly crude animation but marionettes, puppets with their strings noticeably attached. Not surprisingly, some of the movie's best gags stem from the characters' limited ability to move; you've never lived until you've seen two marionettes in hand-to-hand combat.

This being Parker and Stone, of course the jokes don't end there. Team America skewers terrorists, gung-ho anti-terrorists, megalomaniacal North Korean leaders, country music, movie conventions (especially montages and death scenes), and - especially - actors.

Absolutely nothing is off limits here, and that's at once one of the movie's strongest and weakest points. It's nice to see both sides of the political spectrum come in for their fair share of abuse (though, curiously, right-wingers and conservatives should find more comfort in this film than their liberal counterparts). But when everything's a target, it's hard for either the filmmakers or the audience to find a focus.

Then again, let's not analyze things too much; this is, after all, a film acted out entirely by puppets.

The team of Team America is a squad of gun-toting uber-patriots who patrol the world looking for terrorists to kill. In the opening sequence, the co-ed squad takes out a klatch of jihad-crazy killers threatening to unleash their weapons of mass destruction on an unsuspecting Paris. In the process of saving the French, the team also destroys the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph and the Louvre, but such collateral damage does not disturb our heroes (even if the French seem a little put out about it, the sissies).

In the course of their mission, however, a team member is killed, and so their leader, Spottswoode, goes recruiting. He winds up on Broadway, catching the hit show Lease and its wow-'em closing number, "Everybody has AIDS."

The singer and lead actor is Gary, and Spottswoode enlists him on the spot; seems what the team needs is a great actor, someone who can use his awesome power and act his way into the terrorists' confidence. Once the good guys know what the bad guys are up to, they can obliterate them far more easily and more decisively.

Oh, but there are so many bad guys around. First, there are the evil radical terrorists, who plot their heinous acts in bars. Then there's that loathsome Kim Jong Il of North Korea, who shows his utter contempt for Western civilization by feeding poor U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to the sharks.

But worst are those despicable actors, peace-loving members of the Film Actors Guild (get it?) who preach that we should be good to one another, and will resort to any means - including brutal violence - to ensure that happens.

(Among the actors slammed here are perennial South Park target Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Liv Tyler, Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Martin Sheen and - especially - Matt Damon, who must have done something especially nasty to Parker and Stone.)

While hilarious at times, the movie is too scattershot in its approach and too gleefully profane - as opposed to subversively profane, and there's a big difference - to amount to anything more than a pie-in-the-face aimed at everything polite culture holds dear. Not that the pie isn't deserved, but it's been delivered before with greater accuracy and more devastating effect - even by these guys. In their first movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Parker and Stone memorably satirized American morality by coming up with a new fall guy, laying blame for everything on poor Canada. The result was hilarious and pointed.

There's not a single conceit so outrageous and so ingenious in Team America, as Parker and Stone lay the blame for everything on everybody, and try to generate laughter by the ceaseless use of profanities coming out of the mouths of puppets. There's even a puppet sex scene, the explicitness of which almost earned the film an NC-17 rating.

Not that there aren't scattered moments of inspiration. The song "America, #@$& Yeah" is a riot in its send-up of macho, in-your-face patriotism, while another, about how bad the film Pearl Harbor and director Michael Bay are, puts into words what critics throughout the world have been thinking.

Still, Team America is too concerned with seeing what Parker and Stone can get away with, and not worried enough about providing a good reason why that's important to our political consciousness, much less our collective funny bone.

Team America: World Police

Featuring the voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone

Directed by Trey Parker

Rated R (crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language)

Released by Paramount

Time 105 minutes

Sun Score **

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